Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Restrospectives in perspective

Hello from Minnesota.

Been trying to get to more of your questions. So here’s another one.

It’s from ScottyB:

What's your take/reason for "retrospective" sitcom episodes? On one hand, I can see where they're useful, especially if it's a program that took a few seasons to catch on without somehow being canceled and it's a handy way to get the slower folk up even more up to speed, but they always made me think they were just filler thrown together that week because nobody had any good ideas that week, there was an actor/script mutiny, someone in the cast died and shut down the set, the studio caught on fire, or that stars just wanted their own individual talent shows. Even those live 100th-episode retros of Cheers (hosted by John McLaughlin -- gawd, WTF was someone thinking????), Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond just always seemed really hollow and self-serving.

One time my partner and I pitched a pilot to a major network. The VP of Development (who later went on to even greater heights) listened patiently as we spelled out the premise, characters, and sample jokes. When we finished he paused, took a moment to consider, then asked, “What is the first episode of the seventh season?” My first thought (and current thought) was, “What kind of fucking idiotic question is that?”

So my answer was: “The clip show, showing highlights of all the classic episodes from the first six years.” Seriously, how do you respond to something so stupid?  (No, we didn't sell the pilot.)

Yes, the “retrospective” or (as we call it) the “clip show” is a staple of hit shows.

Everyone just naturally assumes it’s a breeze to make the clip show. Just slap a few scenes together and you’re done. It’s almost like a free week. But here’s what you don’t know: assembling clip shows are way harder and takes far longer than any regular episode. They’re a holy bitch.

Think about it – first you have to decide on the format. Will there be wrap-arounds by the cast in character? “Remember the time we…?” If so, you have to write and film them.  Will narration provide the transitions?  Or graphics? Will the star just reminisce? On CHEERS we decided on a panel format. Personally, I thought that was a good idea. It was at least a fresh take on clip shows.

Okay, so now you've decided on your overall format. How are your going to format the clips themselves? By character? By season? By setting? And are you going to show entire scenes or quick snippets? Will there be montages? Will they be over music? What music?

You determine all of that. And now comes the fun part: combing through fifty hours of shows. Someone has to do it. I was involved in the MASH retrospective. After a full day we would drive across town to the lab and screen episodes until midnight. This went on every night for about a month.

You whittle the voluminous footage down to what you think you need. Then it’s assembled and you realize -- shit!  It’s still six hours. You only have forty minutes (assuming the network gives you an hour). Now comes the agonizing process of pruning it down. Expect hours and hours of debate. This scene is really funny but takes four minutes. Do we really want to do that? If we cut this scene than character X gets maybe ten seconds of air time for the whole show. You get the idea.

So now you’ve got it down to time. Congratulations.  What order do the clips go in? You can count on at least five passes.

Get the idea? And remember, all of this work is in addition to writing and producing the show.

The good news is that writers, actors, and directors get residuals if their clips are used. I cleaned up on the MASH and CHEERS clip shows.  In fact, whenever a rewrite night wasn't going well I lobbied for another clip show. 

Tomorrow: How one series retrospective had a traumatic effect on me.


33 comments:

pumpkinhead said...

So this kind of begs the follow-up question... If they're a pain, and apparently expensive re residuals, and audiences (I think) tend to be disappointed tuning in expecting a new episode and just seeing a bunch of clips we're alreadys seen (in our view), why do most long-running shows do them?

Ken Levine said...

They do get great ratings. And it's something "different."

Johan said...

I found it a bit sad when watching the first season of Dead Like Me together with my younger sisters (who had received it on DVD as a christmas present) a couple of years ago and we realized that the 12th episode of was a clip show. Sad because it felt like they had run out of ideas so soon.

Anonymous said...

I think if the clips are folded into the story, an anniversary say, it works. As long as its written well.

I always thought that a reunion show with Raymond, honoring Peter Doyle and showing Frank's 'best', would have been appropriate.

Pam, aka sisterzip

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Sometimes, I think clip shows can help, especially in animation. I've heard that a Simpsons clip show only takes a month to produce, while their regular episodes takes up to 7 or 9 months. Reusing animation can be effective in this regard.

Curiously, the Simpsons only did five clip shows out of 508 episodes, and they haven't done one in the past 10 years.

I recall Fox, at one point, suggested that the folks at Gracie do up to 4 clip shows per SEASON.

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

I always give points to the sitcom Maniac Mansion for making their pilot a (faux) clip show, and thus getting that executive's questions out of the way right quick.

Kevin said...

Ken, I love your insight on the business. At some point, I need to tell you about my exploits with John Ritter. Btw, when you are on with the Mariners, I am in heaven. What is your tie to the team? Sorry to derail the conversation....

Marty Fufkin said...

Your answer gave a lot of great insight, and I'm glad to know that the clip show isn't just laziness. But like pumpkinhead said above, why all that effort if it's something the audience finds "hollow and self-serving" and gives the impression of laziness? What's the point of a clip show if nobody likes them?

Sure, you could say it brings the audience up to speed on the characters. But my very first Desperate Housewives was a clip show. I turned it off and never came back.

elf said...

You have to love that the clip show has become so ubiquitous that several shows have tweaked the format with their faux-clip shows, flashing back to events that never occurred.

LouOCNY said...

Best one ever was the heartfelt tribute to Jack Soo on BARNEY MILLER. No plot contrivances needed, just a simple REAL tribute to a very talented actor who was, in may ways, the heart of the show.

XJill said...

As elf said, the "Community" "clip show" of events we've never seen was really clever.

Jason said...

Clip shows made more sense to me back in the days when shows rarely went into syndication until they'd completed their network run. These days, with shows being syndicated after four seasons or so, on these clip episodes, you end up seeing a clip from the same episode you just saw the day before as a daytime repeat.

When clip shows were something special, they made more sense. The last episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, for example, was a clip show. And I LOVE LUCY did a Christmas episode (unseen in syndication) in 1956 that utilized clips from the 1952-53 pregnancy episodes, unseen since they originally aired. By the 1970s, though, when Garry Marshall sitcoms like HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY were doing a clip show every season, they just seemed cheap and lazy. As your post reveals, they are neither, but I think they can strike the viewing public that way if not handled carefully. That's the problem with them.

chalmers said...

“Family Ties” got so clip show-heavy in its later years that when Justine Bateman hosted SNL they mocked the sitcom for it. She said something like, “I love these episodes because we get paid for a full week with only a few minutes’ work.”

The skit started with a “remember when” flashback, then during that flashback , one of the characters would say,“Remember when…” triggering another flashback, and so on and so on, in a Russian Doll-type regression. In each flashback, the only contribution from Jennifer was to say “Yeahhhh….”

Dave L said...

Hello Ken...

I was just watching an interview with Jammie Farr at TV Legends and he mentions you and your connection to Ohio. His comments are at about 21:20 in video 3 of 4. Emmytvlegends.org

Just FYI. Thank you.

http://emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/jamie-farr#

Rob said...

"The Golden Girls" did one of these almost every year.

"Diff'rent Strokes" had a retrospective after less than two months on the air, with some clips that were seen the previous week!

D. McEwan said...

Certainly the Mary Tyler Moore "Mary's Lousy Parties" clip show, played in the dark with never-seen guest star Johnny Carson was one of the greatest clip shows ever.

DwWashburn said...

Glad to see the Monkees in your placard at the beginning of the article. While they never did a clip show, the nature of the program was that certain 5 to 10 second pieces from previous episodes would be used during the weekly "romp".

Ane said...

I normally find clip shows rather boring, but there was one on Frasier that I liked, the one where Frasier and Niles examine Niles' friendship with Daphne and they sort of step into old clips. Niles even sings a duet with himself:-) That was a good clip show IMO.

Paul Duca said...

Speaking of FRASIER, I have a Friday question. I was watching an episode of WINGS where an animal made an appearance, and got a credit ("Rascal" as "Brutus", Roy Biggin's pet bulldog)

It got me thinking about the "Moose" as "Eddie" situation. Why couldn't Martin have a dog named "Moose"? Wouldn't have it been easier to direct him? Does a dog REALLY understand the idea of "playing a role"? And isn't it difficult, after training an animal to respond to its own name, having to do it all over again to a completely different one?

Steve Murray said...

Having force-fed my 9 year old daughter some 'Happy Days' these past few weeks, I was very pleased to have a 'reminiscing' episode come along a couple of seasons in, so that we could relive some of the funnier moments. It's an easy format for a kid to digest, as their schoolyard talk is very much of the 'How about the bit when...?' variety.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Regarding the "what will happen on the first show of season seven" thingy, here's a strange bit of trivia. In 1964, one of several unsuccessful attempts was made to bring a live-action "Archie" to prime time (only the animated version was a hit).

Anyway, after the credits on the pilot episode finished, several fictional characters from the show met in "Mr. Weatherbee's" office and reminisced in reverse. They actually chatted about those wacky things that either happened to Archie and his friends or might happen (I can't find this epilogue on YouTube).

The show wasn't very good to begin with (for one thing, they changed too much of what made the comics work), but filming a fictional "pitch" didn't help.

Sometimes people in meetings have to say something in meetings because they're in meetings and thus have to say something.

Dave-El said...

The WORST clip show was the Shades of Grey episode from Star Trek: TNG. The show was only two years old and the story set up for the clips were set up around one character. There was some alien sickness thing was messing up Riker's brain so they had to shock his brain back to life or some dumb shit so all the clips were Riker's memories. And Riker was not the most interesting person on the show. Worst. Episode. Ever.

Roger Owen Green said...

Your title Restrospectives in perspective suggests that they ARE restful events.

Jake Mabe said...

I thought the Cheers 200 show was pretty good. I liked the panel format and thought McLaughlin was a fine host.

Hearing George Wendt talk about Norm Peterson was worth the price of admission alone.

Mike Schryver said...

I have a guess about Paul Duca's "Moose as Eddie" question, although I'm not an expert...
It seems to me you'd want the dog's character name to be different from his real name, so that he only responds to the trainer. There could easily be scenes where he's called and isn't supposed to respond, or where responding to the other actors would be undesirable.

I also liked Cheers 200th. John McLaughlin was certainly an interesting choice.

The Justine Bateman SNL sketch was really, really hilarious. When they got to the end of the nested flashbacks and were about to come back through, the inside one was a scene of them watching a JEFFERSONS clip show.

gottacook said...

Dave-El: That Star Trek TNG episode was from a season affected by a long writers' strike, so I can excuse "Shades of Grey" - somewhat.

Jeff Hysen said...

In his latest podcast, Alan Sepinwall said that Sam Malone "devolved" from smart to stupid as the show went from Shelly Long to Kristie Alley. Do you agree? The discussion starts at the 45 minute mark:
http://www.hitfix.com/the-fien-print/listen-firewall-iceberg-podcast-no-146

ScottyB said...

Ken: Dang, dude! Thanks for that really interesting and enlightening answer. I really had no idea when I asked the question what a clusterfuck a clip show could be. The insight you give us never fails to amaze me.

ScottyB said...

Ken: Dang, dude! Thanks for that really interesting and enlightening answer. I really had no idea when I asked the question what a clusterfuck a clip show could be. The insight you give us never fails to amaze me.

Tyler said...

Friday Question for you Ken: What are your thoughts on the show "Coach"? I'm a big fan of the show, and its one that I've never seen you discuss. Have you ever crossed paths with the cast or crew, and if so, your thoughts on them? You've played a role in most of my other favorite shows, just wanted to get your opinion on another.

Kevin Jq said...

During last Saturday's Sox/Mariners rain delay WGN showed Bar Wars III and VI. I know VI is your least favorite, but when Rebecca tells Paul she got a make-over and he asks 'Boobs too or just the face?' I almost spit my coffee out. That was always one of my favorite lines from the show. Did you and the other writers ever have to deal with network censorship for seemingly harmless lines like that because they were vaguely sexual?

Garrison Skunk said...

I liked the joke on the first Simpson Clip Show in which Bart says "...and I don't think we'll ever forget the time that Itchy and Scratchy (leads into a I&S flashback). Marge asks "Why would you bring that up?" Bart "Because it was a very amusing episode ... um ... of our lives...."

Anonymous said...

What's the deal with show titles being presented in ALL-CAPS? I thought that "CHEERS" was actually named "Cheers" and "MASH" was named "M*A*S*H."